Professor Andrew Sharman and Darren Sutton tackle the challenges of making health and safety training stick, by exploring a range of techniques for management – and learners – to get more out of the next training session

At eight thirty in the morning they sheepishly shuffled in to the classroom. Nervously noticing that their name cards had already been placed on the tables for them, they reluctantly took their seats – some in clearly apparent dismay at their neighbour for the day.

When everyone was seated, the trainer rose to her feet and welcomed the group to the Health and Safety for Supervisors’ course. Someone yawned loudly. Another pretended to nod off in his chair. We might say that the attendees were, on the whole, not exactly excited to be there.

PowerPoint slides, uniformly created – each with bullet-point text on the left and a clipart image on the right (a Safety First sign, a red circular STOP! image, and innumerable Zero Injuries logos) – dramatically whooshed through the full array of “animations” – fading in, swirling out and even with complex checker-boarding effect – yet the trainer struggled to elicit much more than a begrudging mumble from anyone during the entire session.

The delegates returned to their day jobs and the trainer shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know what just happened,” she said. “What’s wrong with those people?”

Oh no, another health and safety training course

Sure, health and safety may not be the most exciting of topics for some people invited to attend a training course. We suspect that most readers will have had their own share of seemingly disinterested delegates from time to time.

So, can we actually affect the personal values or existing beliefs of training participants? Can we develop training that will actually change the way learners think, act and behave? How do we create a more effective learning environment that helps us to develop better leaders and a more effective and reliable workforce?


How we learn is a fascinating area of psychology and performance, with many models and theories that occasionally seem contradictory. Some have even been totally debunked! If classroom sessions are still being planned around meeting all of the learners’ different “learning styles” (reflecting Fleming’s ‘VARK’ model) then please don’t stop there.

While people may have certain preferences for how they learn – many have a natural bias towards either visual, audio, reading (or Kinaesthetic learning opportunities) – modern neuroscience suggests that there are much more important things to be considered when developing meaningful and sustainable learning experiences. So let’s explore four ways to make health and safety training really stick.

• No pain, no gain

It’s tempting to believe that we need to make learning easy for our people, right? Well actually, it may be better to make it harder! The evidence suggests that learning becomes much more efficient and long lasting if we make things tougher for ourselves.

Have you noticed those people who write diligent notes in training programmes? They very neatly highlight the key information with fancy fluorescent marker pens. Then they go back and re-read all that important highlighted information to help them remember. Well, that’s not the best way to actually retain or better understand any kind of information. It makes it too easy!

It may be much more effective to read a chapter, or listen to a lecture or podcast, and then, rather than highlighting or tagging key information, close the book, or “pause” the podcast. Now try to recall what has just been learned. Make it hard for yourself, then go back and check if you were right.

This is a much more effective strategy to learn, even if you were wrong at first, you now know that and you’re more likely to remember the information in the future. It’s like building new muscle; if the exercise is too easy then we don’t “stress” the muscle and it doesn’t grow. Guess what? Our brains work in a similar fashion.

Creating a “desirable difficulty” is much more effective than making learning smooth or fluent. Making things tough and trying hard to retrieve the information from our minds creates a more powerful cognitive connection and helps the learning to stick.

We create desirable difficulties in our safety leadership programmes. Homework often includes reading a chapter of one of Professor Sharman’s books, and then presenting a 60-second summary of the chapter (which may often be between 20 and 30 pages) to the entire class the next morning. Participants are forced into understanding the key elements of the chapter, and the distillation of what they’ve learned, followed by sharing it verbally with the rest of the class, which galvanises their understanding.

Water the garden

Have you ever crammed information for an exam, or left your preparation to teach a new subject to the very last minute and had to stay up all night to make sure that you know all that you need to know by the next day?

Well, we wouldn’t water our garden like that – several weeks’ or months’ worth of water in just one day would create an awful mess!

Neuroscience research suggests that learning works in much the same way. It’s much better to do a little bit every day, in bite-sized chunks. This gives our brains time to soak up each nugget of information. To reflect and consider how what we’ve learned could be applied “in our world” or in a specific context. Watering the brain regularly with information works much better than saturating it with heavy loads.

Tell someone!

Another great way to ensure that learning sticks better is to teach your new knowledge to someone else. Check back on the previous section where we discussed “desirable difficulties” for a reminder on our asking participants to make “60-second summaries”. This technique can be used easily to ensure the understanding of key points in any learning session. 

Another idea is to imagine teaching a five-year-old child. Things would need to be broken down into simple language and short sentences, right? This technique is useful in ensuring that training communications are as clear as they can be.

• Take a nap

The research in this area is significant. When we commit to learning something, it can be tiring. A quick nap can help our brains to really soak up the new learning – creating deep understanding and improving our cognitive recall as our sub-conscious automatically filters things for us, and helps us to apply this new information to our world.

This is known as the Zeigarnick effect. In simple terms, if something is left unfinished and then a break or rest is
taken, the sub-conscious will fill in the gaps.  Now, having people snoozing on the job may not be desirable, but a change of activity or a strategically placed break can have similar impact.

Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnick explains how waiters or bartenders can remember orders most effectively. If they take the order and payment for the order at the same time, their brain sees this as a completed transaction and it doesn’t remember the order too well. If the waiter doesn’t receive payment when taking the order, then their mind sees that the transaction is still “incomplete” and that actually helps them to remember the order.


Research suggests as much as 40 percent of our learning can be forgotten in the first 20 minutes, and in six days we may forget as much as 77 percent. So, if we really want our learners to be engaged, there are three important factors to consider. Whichever learning methods or processes, trainers or courses to which we might expose people, our interventions can only act as a lens to facilitate each individual’s line of thought to reaching their own conclusions.

First, learners need a compelling reason why. Before we even mention training opportunities to our staff, we need to create a vision about why they need the training. To do that, one can leverage the organisational culture of the company; communicating, specifically, how this training will benefit everyone.

If people cannot identify the problem that will be solved by the training, they won’t actively participate. In our training programmes we always begin by asking participants to define a learning objective for themselves once we’ve explained the agenda for the session. This helps participants “buy in” to the course content and focus on “what’s in it for them”.

Next, consider what participants need to learn. Ask this simple question to build an outline for content creation: “What do I need learners to be able to know, think, and do as a result of the training?” Write down ideas in each of the three categories, and then think about how to broaden these threads into clear learning ideas.

Finally, it’s good to give people an opportunity to choose how they might consume their learning. Consider options such as live face-to-face programmes, self-directed study, or perhaps some sort of online e-learning option that learners complete at their own pace.


We hope that this article provides some useful thoughts to help build more impact into your training programmes. However, it’s not over as soon as the learners leave the classroom, or receive their certificates of completion.

Professor Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt at South Africa’s North West University reckons that “learning is a process, as well as an outcome” and describes “a spiral of action and research consisting of four major moments: plan, act, observe and reflect”.

We’ve provided some ideas on the first couple of phases, and it’s important to keep an eye on the learners during the training and observe how they’re progressing, so let’s end with a note on this final element.

Back in 1987, Donald Schön introduced the concept of modern reflective practice, which involves drawing connections between knowledge and practice from our own experiences. So, once the session has been delivered, take some time to think back over what happened.

Where were the high points? What did learners most appreciate? Were there areas that seemed more challenging – for the participants or for the trainer? Why might this be? Be objective here. The feedback sheets completed by learners may reveal what worked well for them, but often they paint only part of the picture. Reflection can help you to fill in the gaps and complete the masterpiece.

About The Author

Professor Andrew Sharman (left) is chief executive and Darren Sutton is senior partner at RMS, consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. Find out more at RMS’s IOSH-approved and certified Behavioural Safety Leadership online learning programme takes a mindful approach to developing safety leadership and provides a low-cost, practical and easy-access route to building a robust safety culture in an organisation. E-mail us at: and mention this article to find out more and receive a free gift and special offer when you begin your online programme.

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